Koji Uehara did what he does best Saturday night, taking the ball for the ninth inning, reaching back for all he’s got, and then a wee bit more, ultimately blowing away three helpless Tampa hitters to preserve a 7-4 Red Sox win over the Rays.
It was the Mighty Koji performance that has become pro forma ever since he inherited the closer’s role this season. Three up. Three down. A total of 11 pitches, the final one beaten into the ground by the bedraggled Wil Myers, who spent his fifth and final at-bat of the night (0 for 5) looking like he was shooting down a cod liver oil chaser behind a double serving of cold canned peas.
Some 20 minutes after the win, which lifted the Sox to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five American League Division Series, a pensive-looking Uehara teased a laugh out of a group of Japanese-speaking journalists in the Red Sox clubhouse. Later, through a translator, the vivacious righthander explained that the Asian reporters suggested that he could have pitched the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, an unheard-of workload in today’s game of bullpen artistes.
“I told them not the seventh,’’ a smiling Uehara said flatly, which was what summoned the laugh.
To which an English-speaking reporter then asked if that meant he was up to taking the ball for the eighth and ninth. And with head tilted ever so slightly, and grin breaking out, the Mighty Koji said, “Four outs.’’
Good to know the man has some limits.
All in all, the Red Sox bullpen answered whatever questions might have been out there regarding its efficiency entering the series. If there were a perceived soft spot in the Boston bullpen, perception turned out not to be a reality.
Starter John Lackey (seven hits, four earned runs) worked into the sixth and was picked up with one out by Craig Breslow, who promptly ended the inning with a Matt Joyce fly to center and a Sean Rodriquez groundout. Breslow returned for the seventh and soon found himself with two on and one out, only to tiptoe out of trouble when No. 5 hitter Ben Zobrist chopped into a 4-6-3 double play.
“Fortunately, we were able to make some pitches and get some double plays,’’ said Breslow, also crediting Dustin Pedroia’s fine glove work on the Zobrist grounder. “We are so good up the middle [with Pedroia and shortstop Stephen Drew].’’
The Sox, like most clubs, figure their starters can provide six quality innings and then hand the show over to the pen. All very logical, provided the setup relievers can keep things equal and then pass the task to the back-end guys, the roles the Sox have pegged for Junichi Tazawa (inning eight) and Uehara (inning nine). Breslow, appearing in his first postseason game, handled the task to a T.
“Each guy that came to the mound did a great job,’’ noted manager John Farrell, later adding, “We were fresh. We were ready to go, obviously on the heels of [Jon] Lester’s performance [Friday] . . . they came in and made some big pitches at key moments.’’
“Maybe it takes some creativity,’’ added the lefthanded Breslow, noting the three-man committee approach. “But ultimately success in the postseason is going to come down to making pitches.’’
Such was the case, too, for Tazawa, who started out fresh in the eighth as Breslow’s pickup. Desmond Jennings led with a pop to short. Delmon Young followed with a single up the middle. Yunel Escobar, who had doubled and singled in three at-bats, then knocked into an inning-ending double play. It was the second 4-6-3 in as many innings, the third inning-ending double play for the fast-deflating Rays.
“Two key double plays,’’ said Farrell. “One by Bres in the seventh, another one with Taz against Escobar, who swung well with against [Tazawa] over time.’’
If Breslow can remain effective, he could be the much-needed glue guy who often can be the difference between keeping games together or having them deteriorate quickly once out of the starter’s hands. Middle and setup relievers rarely receive much acclaim, but they’re essential. If no one mentions them, generally that’s their acclaim.
Farrell likes what he sees in Breslow.
“He doesn’t given in,’’ said Farrell, who constantly praises what he calls his club’s overall relentlessness. “That’s evident by . . . he wasn’t going to throw a 3-2 fastball to [Evan] Longoria [who drew a full-count walk in the seventh] in that situation, representing the tying run. He doesn’t panic if he has to pitch around and put a guy on base.
“I think more than anything, he’s not afraid to not give in. He doesn’t give in. He doesn’t throw a fastball in a fastball count. He can cut it, sink it — that’s the main reason why he’s effective against both [lefties and righties].’’